Frontline Initiative: Self-Care for DSPs

CARMA for Direct Support Professionals
Cultivating Awareness, Resilience, Mindfulness, and Agility


Rachel Jacob is the Art Director at The Arc of Ulster-Greene’s Cornell Creative Arts Center in Kingston, NY. She is also the president of the Mid-Hudson Coalition. Rachel can be reached at

Photo of mosaic of broken glass in the colors of the chakra, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, yellow. Center of art has small red heart made of polished stone.

Chakra Burst, Martha Bird, Photograph

Close your eyes. Imagine a polar bear. A big beautiful white polar bear. Got it? Great!

Keep picturing that polar bear, but do not picture a zebra.

What are you picturing…is it a polar bear chilling on a snowy glacier maybe? Or is it a polar bear and a zebra hanging out on that glacier together?

Odds are, you briefly pictured a zebra simply because of your mind’s ability to bend to the power of suggestion. Our mind is our most powerful tool, but many of us don’t know how to use it properly. What’s more, when we are burnt out, tired, or stressed we have less control over our productive thoughts. We give in to more negative self-talk. For example, do you ever go into work with the mindset of, “Today’s going to be a rough day,” or “Monday again? Ugh!” Then, does your workday go according to your predictions? That’s called “setting your intentions”. The simplest way to begin using your mind to its fullest potential is to set some time aside before your day or shift starts. Setting your intention is deciding to think about how you are feeling for a few moments. You can actually set a more positive and productive tone for the remainder of your day or shift just by thinking about it! When we act or think without setting our intention with mindful awareness, we are working almost as if we are blindfolded. More often than not, this leads to reacting to situations around us at work rather than responding thoughtfully. We can start transforming the way we think by learning to harness the power of our minds!

Whether you are reading this article with the hope of preventing workplace fatigue, or you find yourself deep in the pit of burnout, Mindful Awareness can help you overcome feelings of stress. So much of our effort as Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) is spent on helping people with intellectual and developmental disabilities build and use effective coping and calming skills. When those we support lack the initial ability to self-regulate or self-calm, we help people learn to use these skills. But oftentimes we DSPs need skills to manage our own emotions to help us to remain calm and level-headed on the job. Are you able to effectively and specifically label the emotion you are feeling? This is an area where many of us can learn more. These skills include cultivating awareness, resilience, mindfulness, and emotional agility. To help you remember these terms, think CARMA: Cultivating Awareness, Resilience, Mindfulness, and emotional Agility.

Let’s break those terms down.

Emotional Intelligence and Awareness

You’ve heard of IQ right? Unlike IQ, your Emotional Intelligence, or Quotient, otherwise known as “EQ”, can always be increased! You never stop growing emotionally. Emotional Intelligence is defined as, “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others ("Emotional intelligence," 2019).” EQ is established by five main components: emotional self-awareness, emotional self-management, social awareness, relationship management, and motivation.


Resilience is the ability to adapt to and overcome challenging situations or significant sources of stress. In other words, it is the process of bouncing back. People can demonstrate resilience in small ways, such as getting back in the driver’s seat after a car accident to drive again. Or in bigger ways, like returning soldiers rebuilding their lives at home after the traumas of war. Resilience involves learning new behaviors and thought processes and putting them into action. A big component of developing resilience is fostering optimism. Martin E.P. Seligman, the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests people can overcome “learned helplessness, depression, and anxiety, and learn to fight against giving up after failure; by learning to think like optimists (Seligman, 2011).” Optimists have hope in future successes. To build your own resilience, you might find it helpful to connect with friends, family members, support groups, read books, or find online resources related to the topic.


Mindfulness is “paying attention…on purpose, and without judgment (Kabat-Zinn, 2009).” We can be mindful of our senses, and of our inner world of thoughts and emotions. It helps us to respond, not react. It is simple. But it is not often easy because our world, our responsibilities, and those around us can be demanding of our attention. However, we can find time and space within our days to refocus on ourselves. Try practicing paying attention during everyday activities such as waking up, eating meals, walking, or listening to music. For example, when you eat dinner try limiting any source of distraction (TV, internet, cellphone, etc.). Then concentrate on what the food you are eating smells like, looks like, tastes like. Chew with intent. Chew the food 100 times before swallowing your bite! This will bring you directly into the moment so you can be mindful, or aware of the sensations and satisfaction the food is providing you. This can also help refocus your mind on the present and limit feelings of anxiety about the future.

Emotional Agility

Emotional agility is a term coined by positive psychologist, Susan David (David, 2016). Emotional agility includes the ability to become aware and recognize your own emotions and those of others, as well as taking it a step further and learning how to be flexible, adaptable, and innovative with your mental wellness and awareness. There are four key components of emotional agility —

  • Showing Up: Facing your thoughts, feelings, and actions
  • Stepping Out: Observing yourself objectively and examining your feelings
  • Walking Your Why: Connecting your values and beliefs to your emotions
  • Moving On: Linking the previous three concepts together and developing yourself

The overall goal with emotional agility is to become an emotional acrobat, a feelings gymnast, a mental ballerina! Learning to become more emotionally agile, mindful, and resilient will lead to a greater ability to adapt to changing and challenging situations. This will eventually lead to a lower chance for DSP burnout (compassion fatigue), and therefore higher job satisfaction, and greater quality and consistency in individual support. For more information on this particular concept, check out Susan David’s book “Emotional Agility”, her website or watch her TED talks!

So why is all of this emotional jargon important in a field based around competencies, skills, and ethics? Well, at the end of the day, the root of direct support, is people! People are largely complex, unpredictable, and emotional creatures. Competencies and trainings are important to learning how to do the tasks of direct support. Given that working with people is complex, it is crucial to learn to be mindful and reflective. It is not effective or respectful to exert control over other people. We must learn to be considerate and creative when it comes to interacting with others. Many times at work, we cannot change the situation or control the behavior or actions of others. But we can change how we view and/or value ourselves and how we respond, rather than react to different situations/feelings/stimuli. In the words of Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves (Frankl, 2006).” That is truly the goal of adopting a mindful approach to providing direct support. Below are 10 ways to work toward achieving Direct Support “CARMA”:

Many times at work, we cannot change the situation or control the behavior or actions of others, but we can change how we view and/or value ourselves and how we respond, rather than react to different situations/feelings/stimuluses.

Developing and Practicing CARMA Tips and Tricks for DSPs (10 tips)

  1. Take ownership of your own self-care. Practice mindfulness (described above). Discover new ways of decompressing from work and the stressors of life. You cannot fully separate yourself as a DSP and as a person. The two are intertwined, and both aspects of your life need to be well. Create a corner of coziness in your life somewhere in your home, your office, your car; find a nook where you feel safe, soothed, and secure, then let the troubles melt away while you refuel.
  2. Learn to name your emotions! Happy, sad, angry….are not specific enough. When you feel angry…what is the root of that? Does your anger come from sadness, hurt, frustration, or pain? And then where do those emotions come from. Learning to name or describe your emotions specifically will help you to better address and work through those feelings.
  3. Stop labeling emotions, thoughts, or events as “Good” or “Bad.” Leave the judgements at the door and learn to accept life as it is. We can only work towards improvement once we have accepted the current status of things. That is not to say you must settle for the status quo. In other words, embrace what is here, release what you have no control over. Make small modifications where you can. Be flexible!
  4. Let go of unrealistic expectations for yourself, the people you support, family, friends, everyone. Having unrealistic expectations leads to opportunities for disappointment. Instead, welcome mistakes and failures as learning experiences. Again, this is not settling; this is learning acceptance in the moment. Learn, adapt, and move on!
  5. Become actively engaged in your life and teach others to do the same. When you passively allow life to happen to you, you sulk in discontent, anger, frustration, and burnout. If you don’t like how life is passing you by, take action - but start small. Aim for the low-hanging “ripe fruit.”If you try something easy, you will be more confident and likely to attempt something more difficult next. These small successes lead to big triumphs. So start by selecting one small area of your life to improve, for example, limit your Netflix binging to only two episodes at a time, set your clocks ahead 10 minutes to help with time management, drink one extra glass of water a day, or do five pushups after every time you pee….you’ll have a six-pack before you know it!
  6. Find your “elephant!” An “elephant” is a person who has “big ears” and listens twice as much as they speak. An “elephant” is someone who actively listens to you, validates you, and empathizes with you. It’s important to have close relationships where you feel comfortable enough to vent, bounce ideas around, and have your emotions validated.
  7. T.H.I.N.K before you speak. Is it True? Is it Helpful? Is it Inspiring? Is it Necessary? Is it Kind? This helpful old adage is useful in practicing mindfulness when communicating. Take a moment to reflect on what you are about to say, what advice you are about to offer, or an opinion you might share.
  8. Turn your phone’s home screen to a greyscale image. According to many psychologists this can reduce attention distractions and addictively checking your phone by up to 15%. Now you can turn your attention to more important things in the moment instead of social media notifications. Here is how to do it: In iOS 10, go to Settings > General > Accessibility >Display Accommodations >Color Filters. Switch Color Filters on and select Grayscale. For Android, you can find this feature under the “Accessibility menu”.
  9. Most DSPs never take the time to understand how their work affects them emotionally. DSPs play many roles in a person’s life, and provide an immense amount of personal, intimate support. They fulfill the role of broker, champion, coach, teacher, mentor, collaborator and so on. Give yourself credit all that you do to help people move forward and create positive change!
  10. “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are (Roosevelt, 1896).” You are capable of great things. Enjoy the process of becoming mindful, and don’t focus on the destination. The journey is where you will learn to flourish!


  • David, S. (2016). Emotional agility. New York: Avery: Random House.
  • Emotional intelligence. (2019). Psychology Today. Retrieved from
  • Frankl, V. (2006). Search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Kabat-Zinn, J. (1991). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation In everyday life. New York: Hacheet Books.
  • Roosevelt, T. (1895). Theodore Roosevelt: An autobiography. New York: Macmillan.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Building resilence. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from